The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay - Recalling the ancient art of flushing a toilet or turning on a tap

Technology is fine in theory, but — as Michael asks in his essay — do we need it for everything? And why are instruction manuals incomprehensible? He describes one for a kitchen appliance that “reads like the pre-flight checklist for the space shuttle.”
A tap turned on manually. (Shutterstock)

I blame it all on Robert William Kearns. I think of him as the man who couldn't leave well enough alone.

Before Robert William Kearns, windshield wipers had two settings: on and off. If it was raining, the wipers were on. If it wasn't raining, the wipers were off.

Then Robert William Kearns came along and invented the intermittent speed windshield wipers. A driver was now able to adjust the actual speed of the wipers depending on the number of raindrops or snowflakes hitting the front window.

The big car companies at first made fun of the idea. But then they stole his patents for the invention and put the wipers in all their cars. Kearns spent most of the rest of his life suing the car companies and died a broken man.

I have often been accused of being a Luddite by listeners and others. I'm not persuaded that that is entirely fair.- Michael Enright

I have often been accused of being a Luddite by listeners and others. I'm not persuaded that that is entirely fair.

After alI, I use a computer at work, have a laptop and iPad at home and have a smartphone. I also have wireless headphones for listening to music. (As I write, I am into the First Movement of Mahler's Symphony Number 10.)

A mailbot delivering the mail to the second floor of the CBC building on Sept. 29, 2017. (Justin Chandler/CBC)

I feel I have good reason to be suspicious of new technologies. Years ago, the CBC got rid of its human mail distributors and replaced them with a mailbot. This thing ran along invisible tracks around the building, stopping and beeping at various stations.

One morning in a hall near my office, the mailbox got out of control. It pushed against me, pinning me up against the wall.

I couldn't move the thing. I kicked at it, pushed it — nothing. I had a vision of being pinned like a bug against the wall for hours until the firefighters arrived with their axes.

After my rescue by a passing aeronautical engineer, I began to think about high tech in a different way.

And again, years later, when I was trapped for 45 minutes in a revolving door in Ottawa. Dangers lurk everywhere.

It's wonderful that many of these innovations, new and old, can ease our daily lives and give us pleasure. If — and it is a large if — we know how to use them.

Just ask the hapless creator of the Iowa caucuses phone app how his week has been. Better it should have been appless. They didn't even read the manual.

Have you ever initiated a close reading of the instructions for these things?

In early January, I bought a vacuum cleaner. When I opened the box at home and read the instructions, I realized I couldn't get it to work. I couldn't even put all the pieces together.

It was like trying to assemble an IKEA table in a closet without the Allen key.

It was like trying to assemble an IKEA table in a closet without the Allen key.- Micahel Enright

At Christmas, three amazing young men of my close acquaintance gave me an Instant Pot pressure cooker. It can do incredible things like cook a pork roast in 11 minutes. It does everything but set the table for you.

Fine. But the instruction manual reads like the pre-flight checklist for the space shuttle.

Or take my chair — please. A simple chair that swivels and tilts back would be nice. My chair has seven different levers for seven different positions.

The ad on the subway car says that 94 per cent of ergonomists recommend this type of chair. It has more positions than a Brazilian soccer team.

I'm afraid to touch it.

Then there is the whole matter of need — technologies which are invented for no real purpose other than to do something new.

Like self-flushing toilets. Where was the crying need? Same with automatic taps in washroom sinks. They hardly ever work as you stand there waiting for the water to come.

Have we lost the ancient art of flushing a toilet or turning on a tap?

My point to high tech is simply this: keep the devices and gadgets coming, but please make the instructions on how to get the things working easier to understand.

I'm getting tired of going to my millennial son to ask him: "What's this button for?"

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.


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